Contact Info Resources Home FAQ Calendar Tools of the Trade Strategy and Planning Just Starting Home

Rapid Response Examples:
PCBs and General Electric

A good example of rapid response work focused on misleading coverage of a critical toxics issue. A March 10, 1999 study funded by General Electric found no increase in cancer deaths due to PCB exposures. The ensuing coverage in the New York Times, Associated Press, Reuters, Washington Times and others posed a serious science and public education set-back. The environmental and scientific communities quickly rallied to organize a broad-based effort. A letter to journalists was prepared and faxed out to key national and regional science, environment and health reporters. An opinion piece on the very serious, documented effects of PCBs was prepared and immediately sent to the New York Times. Additionally, the original reporter and top editors at the Times were also contacted.

Since one national or regional report can have lasting effects, spawning stories across the country for two weeks or more, it was important to monitor coverage over time and respond accordingly. News was monitored for several weeks; calls and letters to the editor were placed to draw attention to the poorly constructed study.

Following are copies of the original story, journalist letter, opinion piece, and letters to the editor. These tools directly addressed various aspects of the reporting and the study itself.

Pulling together: It should be noted that there is still disagreement among scientists and doctors over whether PCBs can be linked to cancer in humans. Further, since the news coverage came out the same day as the study, many experts did not have adequate time to address the specifics of the 'science.' Still, because the response had to begin within a day or two of the original article, the community worked to address the dangers of PCBs not covered in the study, the misinformed reporting and other aspects that experts could agree upon.

Once a few scientists had an opportunity to review the study and generate comments, these were also incorporated into the response work. The important thing to remember to respond quickly and to work toward consensus whenever possible.

"Study Finds Little Risks from PCB's" Article

Letter to Journalist Response

Op-ed Response

"Fear No More," Opinion Piece

Letter to Editor Response

Letter to Journalist Response

Examples of Rapid Response: PCBs and General Electric

"Study Finds Little Risks from PCB's" Article

The New York Times

Study Finds Little Risks From PCB's

WASHINGTON -- The largest ever study of occupational exposure to toxic PCB chemicals has found no significant increase in cancer deaths among workers who were exposed on the job.

The study was financed by the General Electric Co., which faces potential liabilities of hundreds of millions of dollars for cleaning up waters that are contaminated by PCBs. It is being published on Wednesday in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, a peer-reviewed journal.

The chemicals are complex mixtures that were widely used by industry as insulation in electrical capacitors and transformers from the 1930s to 1977, when their production was banned because of a suspected link to cancer. PCBs persist for decades in the environment, and can be taken up by fish and other organisms. They are also suspected of causing other health problems. Even though the exposed workers in this study had high levels of the chemicals in their blood, their rate of cancer deaths was not high. Previous studies had found extra cancer deaths after PCB exposure. (The study did not address non-cancer problems associated with PCBs.)

"This is the largest cohort of male and female workers exposed to PCBs," the study says. "The lack of any significant elevations in the site-specific cancer mortality of the production workers adds important information about human health effects of PCBs."

The science of assessing the risks of PCBs and other toxic chemicals is among the trickiest tasks for regulators. This was not the first time that the cancer risks of PCBs, the focus of intense regulatory review over the years, have been played down by scientific studies. The Environmental Protection Agency has previously reduced the factors it uses to estimate PCB cancer risks.

The study focused on more than 7,000 men and women who worked from 1946 to 1976 in two General Electric factories in upstate New York, following their medical histories for an average of 31 years and comparing the causes of death of the 1,195 who have died to national and regional averages.

The study found that 353 workers died of cancer, while 400 people would be expected to die of cancer in a statistically similar sample.

The study's lead author was Dr. Renate Kimbrough, of the Institute for Evaluating Health Risks, a Washington-based nonprofit research organization.

"The findings of this study are consistent with a belief that cancer risks from exposure to PCBs have been overstated," said Dr. John A. Moore, president of the institute. He is a former official of the EPA and the National Institutes of Health.

General Electric has fought a vigorous campaign to prevent the federal government from requiring it to dredge sediments in waters contaminated by PCBs. It has frequently cited scientific studies that it says show no link between exposure to the chemicals and cancer in humans.

Examples of Rapid Response: PCBs and General Electric

Letter to Journalist Response

March 15, 1999

Dear Journalist,

Several recent news articles have focused on a study released in the March 10th edition of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, reporting that researchers found PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls) were not linked to cancer deaths. The study was sponsored by the General Electric Corporation, which currently faces multi-million dollar civil suits over health effects caused by their past dumping of PCBs into the Hudson River.

Most of the coverage unfortunately addressed only a small portion of the story. We believe the public is entitled to know the rest, since important health questions are involved.

Despite the findings in GE's study, the U.S. EPA lists PCBs as "probable human carcinogens of medium carcinogenic hazard," and ranks them in the "top 10 percent of the most toxic chemicals to human health." The National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer also consider PCBs to be human carcinogens.

Perhaps the researchers in the GE study found no link between PCBs and cancer by focusing only on cancer deaths, rather than cancer incidence. Furthermore, the study looked at all workers, many of whom have no known exposures to PCBs. And it lumped together those who worked with different mixtures of PCBs, although it is known that different mixtures have different effects.

Regardless of any debate over the connection between cancer and PCBs, there is solid scientific evidence that PCBs are developmental toxicants. Their presence can have long-term effects on a developing fetus, leading to intellectual, behavioral, immune system and reproductive impairment.

PCBs are a known endocrine disruptor - synthetic chemicals that block, mimic or otherwise interfere with natural hormone system development and function. There is significant peer-reviewed literature documenting the effects of PCBs on wildlife, laboratory animals, and more recently on children whose mothers had PCB concentrations during pregnancy at or below levels typical for most Americans. (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Centers for Disease Control, 1998.)

Among these findings in children are changes in the immune system, neurological and motor delays and learning problems - a 6.2 IQ deficit, and 2 years behind in reading and math comprehension at 11 years of age in children exposed in the womb to PCBs at levels typical in the environment.

PCBs are persistent - they do not break down easily in the environment. They also bio-accumulate up the food chain, and therefore are found in higher concentrations in carnivores at the top. A serious public health concern today is the large amount of persistent organic pollutants, including PCBs, found in human breast milk.

PCBs were produced from 1929 to 1977 and used in several manufacturing processes and products. They have not been produced in the U.S. since they were banned by the EPA in 1977, but they are widely used in older equipment and continue to enter the environment through poorly maintained toxic waste sites, illegal dumping and the disposal of PCB-containing consumer products (such as older refrigerators).

The study in question was funded by the General Electric Corporation, currently in the midst of several civil actions over health effects related to the company's dumping of PCBs. GE's Hudson Falls and Fort Edwards plants are responsible for dumping 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson River before 1977.

Because PCBs settle at the bottom of river beds, thousands of pounds remain. This has caused the U.S. Government to declare 200 miles of the Hudson River a Superfund site.

You may recall that last October GE reached an agreement with the U.S. government to clean up the Housatonic River and areas surrounding an abandoned GE plant in Pittsfield, MA.

Your readers should know about the serious risks PCBs pose to public health. To learn more about this issue, please feel free to contact the medical and research experts listed below. For a copy of the GE study or more information, please call Name, contact information.


A comprehensive list of scientists and medical doctors who have given their permission to be listed as press contacts. Always make sure that they are prepared for this possibility.

OTHER RESOURCES: Examples of Rapid Response: PCBs and General Electric

Opinion-Editorial Piece Submitted to New York Times

The Case Against PCBs By Theo Colborn, Ph.D. Senior Program Scientist, World Wildlife Fund and Co-author of 'Our Stolen Future' A recent study, paid for by General Electric, reported no significant link between cancer deaths and exposure to Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) -- a type of industrial chemical that GE discharged into the Hudson River for years.

GE is hailing this study as a scientific acquittal of PCBs in the case of man-made chemicals versus the public health. Threatened by numerous civil lawsuits and under pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up its decades-old mess, GE's enthusiasm for this lone piece of exculpatory evidence should come as no surprise.

But to declare PCBs 'not guilty' of harming the public health is not only premature, it is dangerously misguided. The GE study found only what it was looking for: a lack of increased cancer mortality from PCB exposure. The study failed to address a host of other adverse human health effects increasingly being tied to PCBs and other synthetic chemicals, such as problems with reproduction, development, learning ability, and the immune system.

Until recently, studies of human exposure to synthetic chemicals focused predominantly on cancer risks. But a growing body of scientific evidence reveals that hundreds of chemicals we come into contact with may cause irreversible harm to our offspring in ways that can permanently and significantly alter their ability to reproduce, to ward off disease, or to perform to their fullest intellectual potential.

PCBs are known endocrine disruptors -- chemicals that block, mimic, or otherwise interfere with the natural hormone system that controls development and function. Endocrine disruptors do damage at extraordinarily low doses. They scramble the body's internal communications system during crucial periods of development.

Particularly at risk are the developing fetus and the nursing infant, who rely heavily on hormonal messages to tell their young bodies how to grow. Studies show that PCBs and other synthetic chemicals accumulate in a woman's body fat and are present in large quantities in breast milk; they also freely cross the placenta during gestation.

Numerous human and wildlife studies have implicated PCBs as dangerous, hormonally active chemicals. EPA studies conducted in Research Triangle Park found that PCB exposure during early development caused permanent hearing problems in laboratory rats. Another study confirmed that PCBs cause this by interfering with the thyroid system. Still more studies have demonstrated that thyroid disruption can lead to behavioral disorders such as attention deficit, hyperactivity, and learning problems.

An ongoing study by Drs. Joseph and Sandra Jacobson found significant learning and attention problems in the children of women who had eaten Lake Michigan fish contaminated with PCBs prior to their pregnancy. Problems such as attention deficit, poor short-term memory, low IQ scores, and difficulty with reading comprehension have persisted in these children for at least 11 years and continue to be monitored. A similar study found neurobehavioral deficits in the newborn children of women who had eaten contaminated Lake Ontario salmon.

Before the EPA banned production of these chemicals in 1977, General Electric released 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson River. Because PCBs are persistent and bioaccumulative -- they do not break down easily, settling in sediment at the bottom of the river and lodging in animal fat -- almost every pound that was released into the Hudson more than 20 years ago in all probability remains in our environment today.

Some of these chemicals rest in the sludge at the bottom of the Hudson. Some have been ingested by fish and other river life. Some PCBs are known to move thousands of miles away through the air and water. And some have been ingested by people -- who catch, cook, and eat the fish swimming in the Hudson and other contaminated waters.

PCBs may or may not cause an increased risk of cancer mortality. The GE study examined only cancer deaths, not cancer rates -- and other studies have shown a link between PCB exposure and liver cancer. (The EPA lists PCBs as probable human carcinogens.)

Whether these chemicals are carcinogenic or not, sufficient scientific evidence exists of other extremely serious, adverse human health effects. I have challenged General Electric at two public forums to look at the health of its employee's children because that is where one would expect to find the real damage.

Equally important, we should be studying the hundreds of other man-made chemicals on the market today -- and new chemicals under development -- for potential endocrine disrupting effects so that we can prevent this type of pollution in the future.

When it comes to the public health, we should err on the side of caution. To do any less is to turn our children into a generation of unsuspecting laboratory rats.

Examples of Rapid Response: PCBs and General Electric

Fear No More Opinion Piece

Editorial The Washington Times March 16, 1999 They were linked to cancer, birth defects and wildlife contamination. They were PCBs, and lawmakers hastily passed legislation in the mid-1970s to limit their production and use.

On Wednesday the peer-reviewed Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine is scheduled to publish a study showing that as a matter of fact, PCBs aren't such a big risk after all. "This is the largest cohort of male and female workers exposed to PCBs," the study says. "The lack of any significant elevations in the site-specific cancer mortality of the production workers adds important information about human health effects of PCBs."

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were attractive to industry for a variety of reasons. They could serve as insulation in large transformers, and they were nonflammable, which reduced the risks of fire. At one time insurance companies and building codes actually required the use of PCB-friendly electrical equipment.

But when the chemical began turning up in landfills and rivers, panic set in. In 1975 the Centers for Disease Control found that rats fed large doses of a certain kind of PCBs over an extended period developed liver cancer, and that was all lawmakers needed to know; the stuff had to go.

But because PCBs lingered in the environment, questions have arisen about how to clean them up. General Electric Co., for one, faces possible costs in the hundreds of millions of dollars for removing PCBs discharged into the Hudson River from its factories. Activists are concerned that PCB-tainted fish may eventually cause cancer in the humans who eat them.

The latest study findings should ease those concerns. Focused on some 7,000 men and women who worked in two GE plants between 1946 to 1976 who were exposed to PCBs on the job, the research did find high levels of the chemical in their blood. But it did not find correspondingly higher numbers of cancer-related deaths. It found fewer. Some 400 cancer deaths is what one would predicted in the 1,195 workers who had died, given average rates of cancer. The study found just 353.

"The bottom line," said the study's author, Renate Kimbrough, "is looking at all of these workers and doing all of these analyses, we did not find any significant health effect" from PCBs. Government regulators should keep that in mind when they order PCB cleanup and disposal.

Examples of Rapid Response: PCBs and General Electric

Letter to Editor Response

The Washington Times

March 24, 1999, Wednesday, Final Edition


LENGTH: 292 words

HEADLINE: PCB study finds what it was supposed to find - nothing


Your March 16 editorial "Fear no more," on the recent General Electric-funded study finding no correlation between polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and cancer deaths, left out several key facts.

Perhaps the researchers in the GE study found no link between PCBs only on cancer deaths, rather than on cancer incidence.

Furthermore, the study looked at all workers, many of whom have had no known exposures to PCBs. The workers also had very limited exposure to the most toxic/carcinogenic PCB, Aroclor 1254. Its production was stopped in 1954, but it continues to affect humans and the environment. This is a clear example of not finding what you don't look for.

This is not good science.

Many other studies have shown a strong link between PCB exposure and cancer.

The Environmental Protection Agency, the National Toxicology Program and the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer all consider PCBs to be a "probable human carcinogen."

Regardless of any debate over the connection between cancer and PCBs, there is solid scientific evidence that PCBs impede development. Their presence can have long-term effects on a developing fetus, leading to intellectual, behavioral, immune-system and reproductive impairment.

In addition, children exposed in the womb, such as those in Japan and Taiwan following the rice-oil poisonings of the late 1960s, clearly have problems with skin, teeth, hair, nails, growth and puberty.

This study was funded by GE, which faces steep litigation and clean-up costs from irresponsible PCB dumping in New York and Massachusetts.

The study found exactly what is was designed to find: nothing.

JENNIFER KELLY Program coordinator Environmental Media Services Washington Examples of Rapid Response: PCBs and General Electric

Letter to Journalist Response

To: Name, Science Editor, The Washington Times

Total pages: 3 (this included the Dear Journalists' letter)

Fr: Name

Dear Name,

The Washington Times March 16th editorial "Fear No More," hailed a General Electric-funded study finding no link between PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls) and cancer deaths. However, given the several scientific flaws of the study, I feel compelled to forward you a copy of the following rebuttal.

I urge you to re-visit this issue as soon as possible. PCBs are indeed a danger to public health, linked to cancer and developmental problems. One single, industry-funded study cannot counter the numerous scientific studies extolling the dangers of PCBs - the Lake Michigan cohort; Lake Oswego cohort; Dutch cohort; Japanese cohort.

Your readers deserve to know the entire story. Thanks in advance for your time and attention.



Environmental Media Services
1320 18th Street, NW, Suite 500
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 463-6670

©1999 Environmental Media Services